Playing at Saadiyat Beach


Playing at Saadiyat Beach
Sean Dudley

The Gulf’s first seaside course at Saadiyat Beach is taking shape. Adam Lawrence was one of the first golf journalists to see Gary Player’s team’s work.

With the apparent implosion of Dubai’s economy, the centre of attention in the Middle East has moved slightly to the West.

Of the six emirates that make up the UAE, Abu Dhabi has always been dominant, occupying nearly 86.7 of the federation’s total land mass (and thus laying claim to most of its huge oil reserves).

Unlike Dubai, which, though it became rich from oil, was always aware that the black gold would run out sooner rather than later, and thus embarked on its now tarnished development spree, Abu Dhabi has been able to play a rather longer game. Not, though, that its ambitions are any less extravagant.

On Saadiyat Island, previously a featureless expanse of sand and salt marsh just across the creek from downtown Abu Dhabi, the plans made by development company TDIC – which is owned by the government, but independently managed – include two golf courses, 29 hotels, branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, the latter designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry, a performing arts centre by Zaha Hadid, and the UAE National Museum by Norman Foster. Ambition is not in short supply here.

But that’s not all; only a few hundred metres away lies Yas Island, currently being developed by Aldar, another government-owned company. On Yas the prime attraction is the racing circuit that recently held the last Formula One race of 2009, but a huge theme park called Ferrari World is also part of the mix and there is golf too, in the form of a Kyle Phillips-designed waterside course, with another track in the works.

All this may sound a lot like the Dubai bubble, and it remains to be seen whether the hotels will be filled, the golf courses busy and the houses sold, but at least the projects seem to be better capitalised than their cousins down the Gulf. And the golf, from a first look, promises to be something new for the region.

On Saadiyat Island, the first course, now just about ready to open, is a Gary Player signature design, the region’s first waterside golf experience. Player’s team, led by architect Jeff Lawrence, has used large quantities of fill dredged from the floor of the Persian Gulf to build a dramatic course, with huge and deep bunkers and rolling greens.

It’s perhaps a little bit ironic that in the last issue of GCA, Player himself complained about the modern trend towards long, difficult courses with severe greens and tough bunkers. Why? Because at Saadiyat Beach, he and his company have created a course that, while playable and interesting, is among the most intimidating that this writer has seen for some time. The massive, high impact bunkering, typified by the beachside par three sixth hole, dominates the view, and the grassed areas, while in many cases generous, appear to be little more than narrow ribbons of green. At the sixth, which plays 236 yards from the back tee, the green seems to be a tiny island of grass in the far distance; actually, at 44 yards in length, it is generous, and a confident swing should see the player on or near the putting surface. But if Player doesn’t want to make life difficult for golfers, he clearly has no problem giving them the heebie-jeebies when they stand on the tee.

The excellent short par four tenth hole is another fine example of this characteristic. At 338 yards from the back tees, and less than three hundred from the markers most golfers will play, it’s probably not driveable for most, but it offers an enticing prospect on a course that is mostly long and tough. The lower left side of the hole is entirely guarded by sand, which also cuts into the fairway just short of where a good drive might land. Carrying this spit of sand is feasible, but the elevated green is a tricky target, and several amazingly deep pot bunkers threaten the aggressive tee shot. Truthfully, a sensible long iron followed by a wedge will be the best play for most, but the tough green will induce many to have a bash, hoping for a nice straightforward chip and putt birdie. My companion and I grabbed a sand wedge and some balls from Troon Golf representative DJ Flanders, who is overseeing the course’s grow-in, and disappeared into one of the pots to try it out – I can tell you that Player’s determination to make the game fun for average golfers doesn’t necessarily extend to making the bunkers friendly!

Although Saadiyat is being promoted as the Gulf’s first beachfront course, it only touches the water at two points. The first time is at the strong par four fifth, which has its green positioned close to the front, followed by the sixth discussed above, and then the seventh heading inland. Similarly on the back nine, hole sixteen runs down to the Gulf and the tiny par three seventeenth has the beach all along the right side. The back tee of the home hole is literally as close to the water as it could be – the beach, where turtles nest, is protected.

That par three seventeenth is a terrific little hole. Only 147 yards from the black tees (and this on a 7,800 yard golf course!), golfers playing from more forward markers might be disappointed that only the black is actually set against the beach – the rest curve round in an arc perhaps thirty yards inland. Actually, though, it’s an excellent hole from these tees, perhaps even a more interesting angle of approach. From the forward tees, the green presents an interesting right to left diagonal, and the onshore breeze will help players work their balls around the bunker on the inside.

Elsewhere on the island, the second golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones II’s practice, has completed bulk earthmoving, and should be moving into its main construction stage early in 2010. As yet unnamed, this course will be very unusual: built in the salt flats, fairway pads have been created, separated by tidal creeks. At low water, the mangrove-filled creeks will be dry, but as the tide rises, the sea will fill them. Royal West Norfolk in the UK is an example of a course where this happens naturally, but I’m not familiar with a constructed example. Obviously few hole details can be made out at the moment, but there will be one very exciting par three on the back side.

When Saadiyat Island is complete, which is planned for 2018, the developers anticipate over 160,000 people will be living on its 27 sq km. Where exactly these residents will come from I shouldn’t care to speculate; the whole of the Gulf seems to me to be a massive example of building it and expecting them to come. But if grandiose ambition – and, at least in this case, seemingly almost unlimited financial backing – is enough to achieve success, Abu Dhabi’s future will be assured.

This article was initially featured in the January 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.